In 2004, Congress passed into law a requirement that all educational institutions that receive federal funding host an educational program on the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, September 17th. The law was proposed by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) and its text reads as follows:
Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution.
In the years since, colleges and universities have been less than consistent in following this law. In a survey of thirty highly ranked colleges according to U.S. News and World Report, barely half have programs listed for 2021. Of those, only a dozen could be called “educational” in any sense. For the remaining four, Columbia and Caltech are having its libraries hand out copies of the Constitution, UCLA has the day marked on its university calendar as a "moment of pause" with no further content, and Berkeley is hosting a happy hour with no speaker or other content visible online.
For the other schools surveyed, many have a single, static page hosted by the financial aid office that mentions Constitution Day, fulfilling a technical requirement, but offering little in the way of educational content.
This is not a new occurrence. In previous years, a significant percentage of schools surveyed did not host Constitution Day events despite receiving millions of dollars in federal grants. Of those that did host events, only a few seemed to mark the day with any serious reflection on the Constitution. Some events used Constitution Day as an occasion to take partisan stances, featuring topics that were unrelated to the Constitution. These included a showing of the documentary “Dark Money” at MIT, a lecture on policing and the control of protests at Northwestern University, a lecture on “Gender Dynamics and Partisan Politics” at Notre Dame, and a dramatic performance of transcripts from the Kavanaugh hearings at NYU.
Elite colleges and universities have often demonstrated their impatience and disdain for patriotic displays. Many prefer displays of public devotion to the cause du jour, which these days means acknowledging the university’s complicity in structural racism or commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
But honoring our nation’s founding document does not need to be the cause of yet another partisan division. Sen. Byrd, who founded Constitution Day, was a spirited proponent of the Constitution. He kept a small copy in his pocket at all times and believed firmly in the importance of educating all Americans about our founding document. At the first Constitution Day celebration in 2005, Sen. Byrd said,
Just as the birth of our nation depended on the quality, knowledge, and experience of the men who gave it life, its continued vitality depends on the efforts of our generation, and of future generations, to keep the vision of its Framers alive. [. . .] It depends on the personal commitment of each and every one of us to learn, to understand, and to preserve the governing principles that are set forth so clearly and powerfully in the text of our remarkable Constitution.
If only colleges and universities today took a similar stance.
American education once emphasized the positive elements of our nation’s heroes, places, and ideas. This emphasis has faded in recent years, being replaced by a pedagogy that teaches that American values are outdated and American institutions are problematic. What would it look like if we taught American history from a constructive perspective again, one aimed at building support for our national values, institutions, and history?
A recent series from the National Association of Scholars aims to do just that. Over the past year, NAS has been hosting a series of events intended to present a positive vision of America to students and the general public by engaging American history, literature, art, and culture. Our series presents these crucial topics in a dynamic way to listeners, with an eye to showcasing facets of America that make our nation truly exceptional. The larger series is called “Celebrating America” and features several themes, including “American History, American Character” and the “Great American Novel.”
I hope that colleges and universities can use these events as a model for the kind of educational content they should be offering students on Constitution Day. Love of country is not the property of conservatives or progressives, Republicans or Democrats, right or left. Rather, the Constitution is an American institution, one that we would all be well-served to see flourish. On this Constitution Day, let us remember and study the vision and sacrifice of those who helped create the nation we enjoy today.
Christopher Kendall is Director of Development at National Association of Scholars.